Seeds focuses on facts, not theatrics
By Annabel Soutar. Directed by Chris Abraham. A Porte Parole production presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and Theatre at UBC. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Wednesday, January 22. Continues until January 26
Seeds resembles the kind of film documentary that gives documentaries a bad name: the ones that are all talking heads.
Playwright Annabel Soutar assembled the play from verbatim transcripts of interviews and court trials. It’s about Percy Schmeiser, the farmer from Bruno, Saskatchewan, who refused to buckle to agri-business giant Monsanto. Schmeiser claims that, in 1997, pesticide-resistant canola found its way into his fields—perhaps borne by nature, or because seeds dropped out of a passing truck. Monsanto, which developed the resistant canola, demanded payment from Schmeiser, claiming that by growing Monsanto seeds, Schmeiser was illegally using licensed technology. The dispute made it to Canada’s Supreme Court.
Seeds makes the case that both the Schmeiser-Monsanto face-off and the larger debate about genetically modified organisms are complicated. This is not late-breaking news, but in Seeds it is extremely slow-breaking news: the show takes almost two-and-a-half hours, including intermission.
Act 1 sets us up with a folksy, sympathetic Schmeiser and a slick Monsanto team led by a brittle PR person and a condescending lawyer. Act 2 is more rewarding, in that it challenges left-wing biases and examines Schmeiser’s character, considering the possibility that he may have been manipulative and self-aggrandizing.
But it’s still a lot of blah blah. Long arguments about what percentage of Schmeiser’s crop was genetically modified and in what year don’t make for riveting theatre. Playwright Soutar and director Chris Abraham deliver very little in the way of physicality, imagery, relationships, or emotion. Instead, they dress things up with the tropes of film and TV. Sound designer and music composer Richard Feren contributes an endless, annoying soundscape that comes complete with those punctuating slams from Law & Order. And everybody’s filming one another all the time for live projection. The one truly theatrical moment, which involves the sudden arrival of a bag of grain, stands starkly on its own.
There are some talented actors at work. Eric Peterson of Corner Gas could play Schmeiser in his sleep, and Tanja Jacobs makes her double casting as Schmeiser’s down-home wife and Monsanto’s big-city lawyer into a pleasing showcase.
Still, I knew going in that the GMO debate is complicated and that I have an anti-Monsanto bias. I left the theatre more informed about the Schmeiser case, but my understanding of the larger issues hadn’t deepened to a measurable degree. Liisa Repo-Martell, who plays writer Soutar, ends the evening by delivering a lecture about the vagaries of perception. The speech is so obvious and self-important that I felt like groaning out loud.